Imagine a scenario involving two parents, Laura and Sue, who live on opposite ends of the city and in different school districts. Each has a child in elementary school. It’s early in the new school year, and on this particular evening, both women realize they need to download a copy of the school lunch menu. But here is where their stories diverge.
When Laura arrives on the site for Wayside Elementary, she is greeted by an explosion of color and text that feels more like a circus than a website. Text boxes display random information in varied font styles, and everything contends for top billing on the page. The navigation tabs provide only vague clues about the pages they might lead to. After hovering over a few tabs, Laura tentatively chooses one labeled “Information.” This tab takes her to an exhaustive list of documents, from supply lists to school policy letters to reduced lunch applications from the past three years.
After scrolling through the list twice, Laura tries another tab, and another. Eight clicks and one growing headache later, Laura manages—almost by accident—to locate a link to the September menu. She pounces, ready to download the menu and be done already. But fate is not so kind, and as the dreaded 401 error message pops up on Laura’s screen, she slams her laptop shut and wonders—like so many other frustrated Wayside parents—why the school doesn’t do something about their outdated and inadequate website.
Meanwhile, ten miles away, Sue hops on the newly updated site for Calm Springs Elementary. From the moment she’s there, she knows she is in the right place, and she’s confident she’ll find what she’s looking for. There’s a letter from her son’s principal, welcoming visitors to the site and letting them know what to expect. The home page navigation tabs are simple to follow, labeled in a font that’s easy on the eyes and easy to read. Sue locates the menu in the Parents Quick Link, downloads it to her phone, and she’s good to go.
Before she leaves the site, Sue decides to check out the latest school news and events. She finds out that she can sync the calendar on her phone with the school’s calendar (which—hallelujah—means she won’t need to rely on those crumpled flyers stuffed into the black hole of her son’s backpack). The more Sue explores this website, the more impressed she is. She finds homework help, special program information, teacher contact numbers, links to the school’s social media accounts, and more—and with every page she visits, she feels even more secure in the choice she made to send her child to Calm Springs.
Unfortunately, the experience of most parents is closer to Laura’s than to Sue’s. So many elementary school websites are deemed “good enough,” when in reality, they are an extreme source of frustration to parents, faculty, and other stakeholders. But how do you know what makes a great elementary school website? How do you know if your website measures up when compared to best practices? It all comes down to how well the site is serving the needs of your audience. Is your website a help or a frustration to the people who come looking for answers and information? Do visitors love spending time on your website? Or do they tolerate it because they have to—or avoid it altogether?
When assessing how well your website serves its visitors, it might help to consider some of the essential components of effective school website design. Let’s take a look at what the best elementary websites have in common.
A Welcoming Home Page
The best elementary school websites use their home page as the central hub, not as a dumping ground for everything considered important or noteworthy. The home page sets the tone for the entire site and serves as the online face of your school. An effective elementary school home page will have:
- A warm introduction (that includes location information). Your school’s home page is the anchor for your website and should immediately orient the reader to where she is and what she can expect. Open with a friendly, welcoming paragraph that provides a brief look at where the school is located so visitors know they’re in the right place.
- A message from the principal. This is where you can really start to infuse the website with the personality of the school, so keep the tone consistent with the message you want to convey on a larger scale.
- A guiding purpose. Many schools throw random information on their home page without giving a thought to the flow or placement. But the best elementary school websites ensure that the purpose of the home page—helping visitors find what they came there to find—is evident right from the get-go.
The best elementary school websites have an intuitive navigational structure. Simply put, this means that the average site visitor will find what she’s looking for where she expects to find it. Intuitive navigation includes the following elements:
- Simple and clear navigation tabs. A good rule of thumb is to keep the number of tabs on the main navigation bar between five and seven. Too many options make for a crowded menu and create confusion for the visitor.
- Sub-menus (or drop-downs) that group related links together. A key practice when building intuitive navigation is to group like items together in drop-down menus underneath the main navigation tabs (if a sub-menu is needed).
- Internal links. These are links within the text on any given page that help visitors hop from page to page within your site as needed. For example, if you mention your amazing teachers and staff on the home page, include a hyperlink so visitors can seamlessly move to the “Our Staff” page to read teacher bios or find contact information.
- Headings and labels that make sense. Think of your headings and labels as signposts that guide visitors through the site. The more straightforward the heading, the easier it will be for a visitor to find his way.
- Clearly defined links and buttons. In other words, if a word or shape is clickable, it should look that way; if it’s not, it shouldn’t. This means you’ll want to avoid underlining anything on your site, because an underline denotes a link. (When you create a link, the underline will occur naturally, so don’t worry about adding one in.)
- Quick links arranged by user type. This helps to customize the experience for different types of visitors and makes it easier for them to find the answers and information they’re seeking. For example, you might have categories for Parents, Students, Teachers, and Community, each with a drop-down menu of links specific to the typical needs of that group.
Engaging, Informative Content
Great elementary school websites use clear writing and relevant content to compel the user to move organically through the site. The best school website content has:
- Straightforward language. Too many school websites read like a policy manual. Shun industry jargon in favor of clear, accurate phrasing, and choose active voice over passive. (For example, instead of “Medication will not be administered without prior approval,” try “We won’t give your child medication unless you’ve given us written permission to do so.”)
- An upbeat tone that matches your school’s personality. The best website copywriting for elementary schools has a positive vibe that makes visitors want to stick around. Liven up your content by using a conversational tone to engage the reader and encourage open communication.
- News articles about current events, upcoming activities, and proud school moments. Help visitors stay informed by including a news page, and be sure to keep it updated with the latest information. Parents, teachers, and community members alike will begin to view your site as a go-to resource for the latest school happenings.
- Documents and information that your visitors need. Consider the requests you get from parents, students, and community members about activity schedules, forms, and policies, and think about the questions you’re asked most frequently. Be sure to include these documents and address these concerns in the appropriate places on your website. (In fact, we suggest creating a Frequently Asked Questions page to address many of the questions you hear most often.)
- Current material. Many districts only update their district site, leaving the individual school sites static. But when parents have questions or need information, they usually turn to the website for the school where their child is registered. Keep your individual school site up to date by regularly posting the latest forms and pertinent information for students, parents, and stakeholders.
- Clear calls to action. Ideally, every page on your website should have a call to action (or more than one). Often this simply means to tell the user where to go next or what to do with the information on that page. For example, on the FAQ page, you might include language to this effect: “If you have additional questions, please refer to our Student Handbook [include the link], or give us a call [link to Contact Us page]. We’ll be happy to help.”
Clean Design and Layout
The best elementary school websites are showcases of well-planned and beautifully functional design. Best practices in school website design include:
- Ample white space. In design-speak, white space refers to the places on a document or website that don’t have text or images. The blank spaces. While untrained website designers often try to fill every inch of space with something, professional designers understand that using white space is one of the most effective ways to create clarity, structure, and breathing room on the page. White space also helps with the flow of reading, making it much easier for readers to digest content.
- Limited color palette and font styles. Many elementary sites are designed a bit like a toy store, with flashing text, a rainbow of colors, and a haphazard array of font styles. But if you want to follow the principles of good visual design (and keep visitors on your site), limit your palette to two or three colors—usually your school colors are best—and stick to a couple of font styles as well. Choose one style for headings and a contrasting but complementary style for body text, and make sure they’re professional and readable.
- Cohesive use of good-quality images. The graphics and photos you use on your site can help you tell your school’s story. Use photos with good lighting and a high resolution, and focus on images that will carry the theme of your message across the entire website. For instance, is your school known for its excellent STEAM program? Be sure to include plenty of images that feature students involved in those types of activities. Have a great character-building program? Use photos that highlight school values in action. We suggest using photos of your actual school, teachers, and students, but if you must use stock photography, look for high quality images that don’t seem overly posed or cheesy.
- Responsive design. Responsive school websites improve the user experience by automatically orienting the layout to the user’s screen size. This is important, because more people are using mobile devices more of the time to conduct searches and visit websites, and the trend is continuing to grow. Make it a priority to develop content that caters to mobile users, designing for the smallest screen first and then expanding to include the desktop experience. Learn more about responsive design to understand why the best elementary school websites optimize for the mobile user experience.
Here’s the hard truth: Just because a school website is live and somewhat functional does not mean it is serving its purpose—or its audience. Broken links, confusing layout, cluttered screens, and typographical or grammatical errors look unprofessional and reflect poorly on your school. But with careful planning, a clear vision, and dedicated effort, you can create a site that keeps your target visitors coming back again and again.
Andrea Halls, School Website Content Specialist